What does masculinity even mean anymore in 2021? I think the term "be a man" means something much different to our sons than it did to our fathers and grandfathers, who lived in a society much more preoccupied with the appearance of manliness and attempting to desperately fulfill gender constructs than we are in this somewhat more enlightened time. Gender and sexuality have become so fluid that even unpacking the idea of heteronormative masculinity today is a useless and tiring proposition. The term will mean something different to absolutely everyone you ask.
But if you ask my dad who he looked at as the ideal of a man when he was growing up, I guarantee he would say Clint Eastwood. If you asked my grandpa, he would say John Wayne. I don't know if it had something to do with riding horses and shooting bad guys or the attitude toward women, but when I was a kid growing up in rural northern California, cowboys were the tough guys who always seemed to "get the girl."
Eastwood's newest film, "Cry Macho," takes a stab at unpacking what it means to be a man and whether that even means anything, to varying degrees of success. The film is an episodic road trip about Mike Milo (Eastwood), an aged ex-rodeo star and horse trainer who is sent on a mission by his old boss to cross into Mexico and bring back his wild young son Rafo (Eduardo Minett) to be raised in the States. Most of the movie is just conversations between Eastwood and Minett as they have misadventures in Mexico while they travel closer and closer to the border.
The biggest problem with the movie—and it's one that comes close to killing the entire enterprise dead in its tracks—is that Minett is not even remotely a good actor. It's not the kid's fault at all, because Eastwood notoriously only allows one take on movies that he directs, meaning there was really no chance to craft a strong performance out of the inexperienced actor. We never become invested in the relationship between Milo and Rafo because whenever Minett talks it sounds like he's reciting his lines as quickly as possible because he's so nervous.
Where the movie really has purpose is when Eastwood tells the kid about his life as a former rodeo star and cowboy and how ludicrous and stupid it was to destroy his body over something as ridiculous as riding a bucking bronco. I'm not sure that the 91-year-old Eastwood (our oldest living director) has ever been this vulnerable on screen before. His voice trembles and breaks throughout like a kid hitting puberty and his hands shake even as he holds a cup of coffee to his lips.
Eastwood doesn't decry his past as the bygone ideal of masculinity, but examines it in a way that he hasn't since "Unforgiven." If "Cry Macho" had a stronger script and central performance, it would be a masterful swan song for his career (even though I'm sure he'll direct more movies before all is said and done). Eastwood still frames shots beautifully and really takes his time telling a story, but his insistence on only getting one take of a performance means that there's only so much we can get from characters in his modern work.
Being macho doesn't mean the same thing now as it did to our parents or their parents and that's a good thing. A lot of that masculinity was toxic, couched in buzzwords like "patriotism" or "duty" that were really just thinly disguised representations of ego. It was more about being seen to be manly as opposed to actually being one. "Cry Macho" posits that maybe the best way to be a man is just to be a good and kind human and not worry about the things that fleetingly make you look like a badass. That's a big idea coming from the guy who spent most of his career sneering into a camera and spouting angry catchphrases. In fact, to me, that's the most macho thing he's done yet.
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Now Playing at Old Mill, Sisters Movie House, Odem Theater Pub and streaming on HBOMax